Provost speaks at White House panel discussion on fatherhood

After studying the topic for some 30 years, UO Provost Scott Coltrane brought his knowledge and research on fatherhood to a national stage this week.

Coltrane, a family sociologist, was invited to take part in a White House panel that looked at the new dynamics of home life and old stereotypes facing fathers trying to reconcile work and parenting. He participated on one of three panel discussions Monday, June 9, that examined different challenges fathers face at home and at work and how business are, and aren’t, adapting.

Coltrane has studied families and fatherhood since the 1980s. Research on fatherhood in particular has drawn increasing attention as the structure of home life has been altered by economic and demographic shifts, putting more of a spotlight on the new realities facing fathers.

In addition to being asked to take part in the White House panel, Coltrane also recently was interviewed by National Public Radio for a story noting that the number of dads staying home to care for children has doubled in the last 20 years. He did another interview with KCBS in San Francisco after the Monday panel.

“It’s gratifying to realize that something as important to me as this is now considered a social problem, a pressing issue,” Coltrane said before leaving for Washington, D.C.

The panels were part of a lead-up to the White House Summit on Working Families being held June 23. Among the key speakers from the White House at Monday’s event were Denis McDonough, White House chief of staff; Secretary Thomas Perez, Department of Labor; and Secretary Anthony Foxx, Department of Transportation.

And a featured speaker was Daniel Murphy, second baseman for the New York Mets who took paternity leave and missed the opening game of the season in April. Murphy had three days of paid paternity leave in his contract.

In contrast, Coltrane noted that California and New Jersey offer six weeks of paid leave to care for new babies or the medical needs of family members.

Employers who took part in the panels talked about flextime, telecommuting, condensed work weeks and other ways to balance work and family commitments without sacrificing productivity or profitability.  Coltrane said such policies allow companies to hire and retain more qualified workers and save money on recruiting and training costs. And flexible scheduling and leaves are associated with higher job satisfaction and happier marriages, as well as less stressful parenting.

Coltrane took part on a panel that examined the stigmas and opportunities fathers face at work. It’s a subject Coltrane explored in a paper that appeared last summer in the Journal of Social Issues and in an article in The Atlantic magazine that followed in December.

Both articles looked at the challenges fathers often face when taking parental leave to care for children. Coltrane found that fathers who work less or take leave for family reasons earn significantly less in the future than men who do not, a phenomenon Coltrane calls the “flexibility stigma.”

That has prevented many men from seeking paternity leave even when it is offered or even to hide from employers any suggestion they need or would like time off to care for a new child. But Coltrane said signs of change are emerging and employers are slowly realizing that to attract the best workers they need to have more family-friendly policies, for men as well as women.

“I think the underlying message is it’s not a worker rights issue. It’s more like this is the reality of family life today, and businesses that want to be successful will develop the policies needed to allow employees to balance family and work,” he said.

Surveys have turned up evidence that children who grow up in families where fathers take time off for parenting do better in school, form stronger friendships and have better self esteem than in families where the father does not take time off, Coltrane said. Other surveys show benefits for the fathers as well; men who take time off for parenting live longer than other men and are more satisfied with their family life.

An infographic on the shifting demographics of working dads is available here. Additional information on the Working Families Summit can be found here.

―By Greg Bolt, UO Public Affairs Communications